Isha Upanishad Verses 12-13
There is both the seen and the unseen.
Don’t become infatuated with either
the seen or the unseen.
Commentary by Vimala Thakar
Andam tamah pravishanti ye’sambhutim upasate
tato bhuya iv ate tamo ya u sambhutyam ratah.
The manifest and the unmanifest together constitute the wholeness of life. If you get entangled with either of the two, your life becomes one sided and suffering follows.
Sambhutim means the manifest. In other words it is that which has a form, which has become tangible and visible. That which has clothed itself in the framework of time and space. Manifest means that which is expressed. There are two words, impressed and expressed. That which was contained within or inside, becomes expressed. It takes some form and becomes visible or known and so it has exposed itself. When the inner contents expose themselves, they become expressed. When the contents conceal themselves they are impressed.
If the distinction between the manifest and the unmanifest is clear then you will understand the two words sambhuti and asambhuti. Sambhuti refers to the manifested world being the world that is exposed or explicated. Asambhuti refers to the impressed or the formless life. Life has two aspects, form and formless or manifest and unmanifest. But the word asambhuti adds another dimension to what is referred to as the unmanifest. It refers not only to the unmanifest but also to that which is unmanifestable. The unmanifestable is that which can never be fully manifested or that which cannot ever take form. So what you have in effect is the manifest, unmanifest and unmanifestable. You have the known, the unknown and the unknowable. And so you have the visible, the invisible and the infinite.
The unknowable is that which is beyond either naming or understanding. One might call it the absolute ground of existence. It never becomes manifested. The rishis refer to it as the ultimate reality or the real.
Ye’sambhutim upasate means “those who worship the unmanifest”. Andam tamah pravishanti means “they enter darkness”. What this is saying is that those who worship, adore, admire, are attracted to or become enchanted with the unmanifest world enter into darkness. This is very applicable to the Indian psyche. The Indians love all this. All the obsession with the gods and the goddesses. They go on and on about their concepts of the absolute and sat-chit-ananda. They are so enamoured by the invisible that they neglect the manifest world and what is all around them. But where does it get them?
The whole Indian culture has been worshipping the unmanifest world and has become fascinated by the innumerable energies that work behind the curtain of the manifest world. They are so taken by the idea of the absolute that they get intoxicated even at the mention of their gods and goddesses. They are so enamored by the transcendent that the manifest is ignored. They have no respect for and neglect the manifest so there is chaos, disorder, filth and imbalance. You only have to look at Indian society to see this immediately. So this is what is called entering into darkness.
You see, these people have been talking about spirituality, non-duality, advaita and running all the time to the temple and mosque to make offerings and yet they live shabbily surrounded by dirt and there is no sense even of cleanliness. Why is this? It’s because they have called the manifest maya or illusion. They have not understood it. They have disrespected the manifest and misunderstood its relationship to the wholeness of life.
I am sorry to say this but if we step away from our romantic notions the story was the same in Tibet. And so a vast Buddhist community with their huge wealth and power were living in their monasteries like parasites exploiting the householders and essentially living off their backs. Exactly the same kind of parasitical life existed in India.
So this verse is saying that those who become enamored with the invisible world and the transcendental fall into darkness. Those who run after and seek to develop and possess occult powers and psychic abilities enter into the region of darkness. The fact is that the oriental psyche is enormously attracted to all this. The occidental psyche has developed in a different direction. It has gone in the opposite direction and since the period of the Renaissance developed the sciences of the manifest world. So they are not madly obsessed with the unmanifest.
Now the whole problem with regarding the manifest as maya or illusion is that you start to regard it as unimportant. So you go to the temple and sing your bajaans and then you indulge in all kinds of insensitive activities because you see it all as maya and unimportant. And so whilst you talk about god, non-duality and the absolute, you have no respect for others or the living world around you. The unwarranted misery, corruption, exploitation, shabbiness and disorder of this country is an illustration of what the rishis were counseling against.
You see, it’s so easy to get intoxicated with the unmanifest world. And there is no way to really verify any of it. So people talk about their esoteric and occult experiences and their samadhis and their psychic abilities but where is the yardstick by which it can all be measured? In the end, there is just degenerating authenticity which devolves into all the avenues of exploitation that manifest as spirituality and religion. There is political and economic exploitation but then there is spiritual-religious exploitation. The spiritual-religious exploitation is far worse because you are dealing with the inner dimension of the psyche where people are most vulnerable.
So what the rishis are saying is that the unmanifest as the invisible realm of energies are important to recognize but if you start to become fascinated with them and attribute undue importance to them then you enter into this dense and blinding darkness because you start to neglect and depreciate the manifest. See that you yourself are a manifestation of reality and you have to co-exist with other manifest aspects of the reality. You have to relate in a way that is harmonious. So in a balanced way you need to express the love that holds the cosmos together and to do so you cannot neglect the manifest.
Now let’s turn to another aspect of the word sambhutim. The relationship of sambhutim to asambhutim also refers to the alternation between manifestation and de-manifestation. What I am referring to is the cycle of creation and dissolution. Emergence and merging back. Life is actually this cycle of alternation between sambhutim and asambhutim. Creation becoming manifest and then dissolving back into the unmanifest.
When a person dies what occurs is a dissolution of that which was manifesting in physical form back into formless space. Death is the dissolution of life. With birth the implicate becomes explicate. With death the explicate once again becomes implicate. The human being becomes manifest at birth and then at the moment of death the human being dissolves in a mysterious way. So life is this cycle of emergence and merging back. It is this cycle of birth and death. But what we call death is not destruction. It is merely a dissolution. A merging back to the source.
So to summarize, in the verse, the rishi is saying that to become infatuated with the unmanifest is the wrong approach. You should be aware of it, but if you start to give it too much importance then there will be imbalance.
Let’s turn to the second line of the verse: tato bhuya iv ate tamo ya u sambhutyam ratah. Now here comes the blow for those who only take notice of the manifest to the exclusion of the unmanifest. The manifest is only a fraction of the whole. It is only one dimension or aspect of life. The unmanifest gives the mind the intoxication of conceptual ideas and beliefs. With the non-manifest, thought becomes intoxicated with ideas of gods, the absolute and non-duality. It is a kind of invisible pleasure at the psychological level. Now with the manifest there is a different kind of intoxication. Through the manifest the mind becomes intoxicated with the appearances generated through the senses. And so the person enters into an even darker darkness.
Those who become totally fascinated with and entangled in the manifest lose their awareness of the unmanifest as the formless and transcendental. They become so attached to the manifest that they become afraid of death. They are so attached to form that they cannot relate to the formless. They want to obtain from the manifest as much pleasure as they can extract from it. And so living becomes a process of trying to extract and secure pleasure for themselves out of the manifest world. So you can see what the modern world has become. Life has become a battlefield to extract pleasure out of the resources of the earth through conversion into material objects for the sake of satisfying this endless desire for the pleasure promised by material things. Do you see what has happened?
Humanity has become engaged in this battle for the pleasures of the manifest. And so there is this constant fight for ownership of the manifest. The result being of course exploitation. Exploitation of the world and its resources. The forests, the oceans the rivers etc. And it doesn’t stop there. The exploitation of other life forms, of animals as though they are mere objects. And then of course, the exploitation of each other as though a human being’s value is in its ability to produce. Humans become mere means of production. So you see what we are doing to each other and how ugly it is. And so we turn life which is sacred and valuable into this meaningless battle for ownership of the manifest and the pleasures that can be extracted from them. One day, if we are ever to live together as a global family, the human race will need to learn to share resources in a sensible way and create a society that is not based upon exploitation.
The manifest is very seductive because of the illusion of objective solidity. It appears to be tangible. You get sensual pleasure out of it that is instant and repeatable. In the manifest there is the appearance of continuity and succession. In memory events and experiences are stored away. There appears to be a tangible something there and you can manipulate it in your mind. And so you have the feeling that you can recreate these experiences.
From this comes the sense of security of continuity. You feel that you can possess things. There is the illusion of ownership. And as you become inured to the manifest you forget that life is a dance of both creation and dissolution. You forget that your small pleasures may get dissolved at any moment. You forget about death and the fact that it can all evaporate just like that. You forget that the wholeness of life is simultaneously both creation and dissolution.
Now let’s return to the last line: tato bhuya iv ate tamo ya u sambhutyam ratah. The rishi is pointing out that you easily get infatuated and attached to the manifest because it is visible. It is tactile. It appears to be tangible and concrete even if it is not.
Now with the unmanifest things are less tangible. The arena of the unmanifest is much larger than that of the manifest. On the one hand there is philosophy, music, literature, abstract mathematics etc. And then you have the other dimensions of the mind, the astral, the psychic and the esoteric. All of this is intangible yet they are recordable in memory. There is something there that can be remembered even if only for a short period of time or as an approximation.
But more intangible yet are the subtle states of mind that belong to the unmanifest such as deep peace, tranquillity, joy, love, the stillness of silence and Samadhi. These leave no residue. They are utterly ineffable. There is nothing there to remember. It’s unrecordable by memory because nothing is seen or heard and no events occur. Because there is nothing to remember they have no continuity in thought. They are only there and available in the moment of experience.
So the rishi says that both the manifest and the unmanifest together constitute the wholeness of life. If you become overly obsessed with one or the other, you will fall into imbalance. You may run off to live in a cave in the Himalayas or take vows and become a monk and live in a monastery or an ashram, but your life will become one-sided. The result will be incompleteness. You won’t find balance like that. There will be something missing.